Last month I wrote about China’s search market, how it is dominated by Baidu, and how that dominance is threatened by mobile-only disruptors such as Shenma.
While Shenma continues to build on its growth since being launched back in 2014, there have been news reports in the past few months suggesting Google may also be set to re-enter the market after having its search property (and others) blocked by the Chinese state back in 2010.
I want to use this post today to try and separate out the facts from the speculation in regards to these recent reports. What can be corroborated? What is rumor? And what can we reasonably expect from Google in China over the short and long term?
The most recent official statement from Google on this came on 26th September at a Senate hearing attended by the search engine’s chief privacy officer Keith Enright and detailed at South China Morning Post.
“There is a Project Dragonfly,” Enright said, but added that he was “not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of the scope for that project”.
Enright also pointed out “we’re not close to launching a search product in China, and whether we eventually could, or would, remains unclear.” He iterated that if Dragonfly was anywhere beyond the early phases of exploration and development, then his team would be in the process of reviewing the product to ensure it adhered to Google’s privacy values.
So while we can be certain Google is working on a search ‘project’ for the Chinese market, official word is that it is still very early days.
As I highlighted in my last post about the Chinese market, Google has spent 2018 negotiating with key digital companies based in the country, including a patent cross-licensing agreement with Tencent and a partnership with e-commerce company JD.com.
In July the company launched an AI-powered mini-game on WeChat (Tencent’s IM and social media client). It has also invested in an AI centre in Beijing, as well as a number of other domestic companies.
These partnerships between Google and companies in China is significant. The Intercept – a news site which specialises in privacy, security and politics – has been the primary reference from which other news outlets have based their stories about Dragonfly. Last month they reported that an internal memo was leaked which contained certain details about the project. No official statements have been made by Google as to what is or isn’t accurate in The Intercept’s reports about this memo. But as we will see, there are a number of elements which do seem trustworthy.
One key detail is that the development of Dragonfly is a joint venture between Google and another, as yet, unknown company based in mainland China. This would be in-keeping with Google’s deal-making activities to date. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this partner could even be one of the companies we have already mentioned.
This is where Google’s partner in the project is significant. Whoever they are, they will potentially have access to this sign-in data. It is also speculated that phone numbers and IP addresses will be linked to searches too. As well as movements.
In the context of China as a mobile search market, personal and locational data will no doubt help Google compete with the for-mobile service Shenma whose m-commerce and local search convenience are its key features. On the flipside, China as a proponent of ‘cyber sovereignty’ understandably makes a lot of people uneasy about such data potentially being accessed by the government.
It is also possible that Google’s partner in Dragonfly will have a hand in being able to edit and amend search results. Dragonfly’s SERPs would need to adhere to China’s strict censorship laws, so if it is a partnership project this might make it easier for Google to run the project within the parameters set by the Chinese government. This might also make things easier in the eyes of users of the service – perhaps if the tool is presented not as a Google product at all, but rather with the subtle byline that it is ‘powered by Google’ the company can relieve itself of some of the responsibility on the censorship/privacy side of the service.
The Intercept has also published reports that around seven Google employees are leaving the company over Dragonfly. One of these, Jack Poulson, has been named publicly – and his resignation letter is accessible here.
Poulson himself was made aware of Dragonfly from reports in the press. The subsequent actions of him and his colleagues certainly give credence to some of the speculation surrounding the data Google will gather via the search engine and whether this could end up in the hands of the Chinese government.
“Project Dragonfly has, at the very least, involved us ‘designing’ technologies that violate the latter two of our four primary constraints,” Poulson writes. These constraints (or Google’s own AI Ethics Principles as set out in June 2018) state the company will not “design or deploy” AI in the following areas:
While there is mounting pressure – even from within Google – to drop the Dragonfly project altogether, there is a massive yearning among Chinese consumers for Google to have a search presence once more.
As reported at The Drum, more than 72% of Weibo users (one of the country’s leading microblogging sites) would choose Google over Baidu et al. if it were to launch a new service.
Whether users would still be as enthusiastic for Dragonfly with the knowledge that their personal data might be linked to searches and accessible to the government remains to be seen. But it is not surprising that the company are exploring any possible way they might be able to have a search presence in the market once more.
Another fact which is likely to push Google to explore every possible route back into the Chinese search market, is that they will be able to leverage some of their other key products in order to help Dragonfly establish a significant footing.
As evidenced by StatCounter data, Google’s Chrome is the leading browser in the market. Android is the leading mobile OS. And in 2018 the company also launched the mobile cloud storage service Files Go. These successes, along with the company’s new partnerships ensure that business is in a strong position to compete with Baidu and Shenma should it re-enter the search vertical.
The criticism levelled at the company from inside and outside its walls seems justified. The possibility that the data of its users may be subject to surveillance from the Chinese government and that the tool itself would need to be censored well beyond what is in-keeping with the company’s founding philosophy makes logical sense. After all, the service clearly aims to make use of personal data – and will likely need to – in order to offer a mobile search and shopping experience that can match Shenma and Baidu. Additionally, the Chinese government is unlikely to keep Dragonfly whitelisted if it doesn’t operate within its policy of “cyber sovereignty”.
On the flipside, consumers in China are clearly quite desperate to have access to Google’s world-leading search algorithm once more. The Weibo survey coupled with the popularity of Chrome, Android and other Google products suggests that even if users knew that the state was meddling with Dragonfly’s SERPs many would still be keen to use the product. And they, of course, deserve the right to be able to choose to use it or not. Whether Google does or doesn’t re-enter the Chinese search market – the company needs to weigh up the gains of building the brand in the East, while potentially damaging it in the West.